The special love between Makayla Epps and UK fans
Anthony Epps knows the crazy that is Kentucky basketball.
He lived it and breathed it during his four years in a Wildcats uniform.
The former UK point guard smiled widely as he left Memorial Coliseum on Sunday and witnessed the crazy again.
Crazy came this time in the form of a line that went on for what he called “forever and ever” to get an autograph from his daughter Makayla, a star senior on the women’s team.
The younger Epps hadn’t even scored her final basket in the Cats’ victory over Florida on Sunday when the line began to grow. It stretched down the long, winding hallway at Memorial Coliseum and spilled outside.
“I texted her and told her to be proud of everything she’s accomplished,” he said Sunday night. “She makes a lot of people proud and to remember that fact. That line told it all.”
Epps stood at a table at the end of the hallway for hours and signed every program, every ball, every shirt, every single item that fans put in front of her.
The long and winding line included a breast cancer survivor, girls wearing Epps’ signature head band or her No. 25 jersey, girls who said they started playing basketball after watching her aggressive, fun style.
There were 41 elementary school kids from Beattyville who waited patiently just to get a chance to say hello to their hero.
“She just inspires people,” said an excited Bailee Wright, one of those students from Lee County, who plays basketball for the elementary and middle school teams there.
Epps especially was moved by a young autistic girl.
“She was crying when she met me,” said Epps, who would like to coach and work with special needs and high-risk kids when her professional basketball career is over. “She said I was her hero. I’m out here making an impact on people I’ve never even met. It’s an amazing feeling.”
There’s Makayla Epps the player, who has scored 1,664 career points (No. 5 on UK’s all-time scoring list), and is on nearly every award watch list around the country.
And there’s Makayla Epps, who has become the face of UK women’s basketball, a separate entity now from her famous father and their shared No. 25 jersey.
“She just connects so well with people,” UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said of Epps. “She has a beautiful spirit about her. She has a great heart for people.”
When I put that jersey on and there’s Kentucky on my chest, it really means something. It’s not just about me and my dad and that little legacy we’ve got going on. It’s about I was born and raised in Kentucky, and this state really means something to me.
And people love her, Anthony Epps said. He’s seen it firsthand.
“When she walks into a gym — like when her brothers play or coming to watch me coach — all eyes go to her,” said Anthony Epps, who coaches the girls at Campbellsville High School. “They know who she is. And she’s a kid who accepts that, doesn’t run away from it.”
She’s embraced it the same way she embraced him while wearing her UK cheerleading outfit as a toddler on her dad’s Senior Day nearly 20 years ago.
He’ll be at her Senior Night on Thursday when No. 22 Kentucky takes on No. 3 Mississippi State, standing at midcourt with Epps’ mom, Angela Mattingly, waiting for Epps to crash through her hoop and be showered with cheers from fans.
“It’s a great feeling to know she’s made her own name and put her own stamp on her brand at the University of Kentucky,” said Epps, starting point guard of the 1996 national title team. “She’s been a great ambassador for not only the university but for the state of Kentucky.”
Makayla Epps doesn’t know about all that.
“Years from now when people are talking about Kentucky women’s basketball, I just hope they’ll still mention my name here and there,” she said this week.
Epps just loves playing basketball and will finish in the top 10 of several career lists, including scoring, assists (eighth with 389), made field goals (sixth with 620) and made free throws (seventh with 334).
Sophomore Maci Morris, a fellow fan favorite from Bell County, said playing with Epps “has just been a joy.
“She’s a team player,” Morris said of the senior. “You know, a lot of people think she might be selfish but she does what she needs to do to help us win. … She just brings so much energy.”
Years from now when people are talking about Kentucky women’s basketball, I just hope they’ll still mention my name here and there.
It’s that positive energy on and off the court that makes people gravitate toward the 5-foot-10 senior guard, whose legend started in high school when she led Marion County to a perfect 39-0 season and a Sweet Sixteen championship and was later named 2013 Kentucky Miss Basketball.
The laundry list of accomplishments have continued at UK.
“She’s had some incredible moments here as a player,” Mitchell said of Epps, one of just two UK women’s players to manage a triple-double. “But I don’t think any of that would matter if she weren’t the person that she is and have the heart that she has for people. I think that’s the most important part of why people connect with her.”
Epps’ round cheeks hurt late Sunday night from smiling for so many pictures with older fans and selfies with young fans.
Her right arm burned from signing her name over and over again. Her legs ached from standing there for so long after playing 35 minutes in the win.
She won’t complain, though, because she gets it.
She’s always gotten it.
“When I put that jersey on and there’s Kentucky on my chest, it really means something,” she said. “It’s not just about me and my dad and that little legacy we’ve got going on. It’s about I was born and raised in Kentucky, and this state really means something to me. They’ve shown me extreme mad love over my four years here.”
No. 3 Mississippi State at No. 22 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Mississippi State 27-1 (13-1 SEC), Kentucky 19-8 (10-4)
Series: Kentucky leads 26-17
Last meeting: Kentucky won 83-60 on Feb. 18, 2016, at Starkville, Miss.
Probable starters: Dominique Dillingham, 5-9, G, Sr. (7.3 pts, 2.6 rebs, 2 asts); Chinwe Okorie, 6-5, C, Sr. (8.7 pts, 6.2 rebs); Breanna Richardson, 6-1, F, Sr. (7.4 pts, 4.5 rebs); Victoria Vivians, 6-1, G, Jr. (16.8 pts, 4.4 rebs); Morgan William, 5-5, G, Jr. (9.8 pts, 4.6 asts)
Key reserves: Tearia McCowan, 6-7, C, So. (8.2 pts6.4 rebs); Roshunda Johnson, 5-7, G, Jr. (7.1 pts); Blair Schaefer, 5-7, G, Jr. (4.5 pts)
Probable starters: Maci Morris, 6-0, G, So. (6 pts, 3.6 rebs); Evelyn Akhator, 6-3, F, Sr. (14.9 pts, 10.4 rebs); Taylor Murray, 6-5, G, So. (12.2 pts, 5.2 rebs, 3.8 asts); Makayla Epps, 5-10, G, Sr. (16.9 pts, 4.4 rebs, 3.7 asts); Alyssa Rice, 6-3, C, Jr. (4 pts, 4.4 rebs)
Key reserves: Makenzie Cannm, 6-1, G, Jr. (6 pts, 3.6 rebs); Jessica Hardin, 5-8, G, Sr. (3.5 pts); Paige Poffenberger, 5-8, G, Fr. (1.1 pts); Jaida Roper, 5-6, PG, Fr. (2.9 pts)